When Do Governments Make It Possible for Emigrants to Vote?

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Kumar Ramanathan, covers the new article by Elizabeth Iams Wellman, Williams College and University of the Witwatersrand, “Emigrant Inclusion in Home Country Elections: Theory and Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa

One of the most central questions in any democracy is “who can vote?” In a world where migration is common, this includes the question of whether emigrants—citizens who have left their home country—can vote. Today, over 135 countries allow emigrants to vote in elections. The enfranchisement of emigrants has been particularly remarkable in sub-Saharan Africa: not a single country in the region allowed emigrant voting before 1990, but 32 out of 48 countries have legalized it since. Extending the vote to emigrants can be hugely consequential: emigrant voters decided the outcome of two close presidential elections in Cape Verde, and winners of competitive elections in some countries such as Senegal have increased emigrants’ access to voting to shore up their support.

In a new American Political Science Review article, Elizabeth Wellman investigates why governments expand or restrict the ability for emigrants to vote. To do so, she constructed a dataset of emigrant voting access in all national elections in sub-Saharan African countries from 1990 to 2015. In addition to examining whether emigrants could legally vote in each country, she also examined policies such as the availability of polling stations and voter eligibility criteria. These policies determine whether emigrants can actually vote in practice.

Wellman finds that governments are likely to expand access to voting for emigrants when emigrants’ support for the incumbent political party is high. In a statistical analysis, she finds a strong relationship between emigrant support for incumbents and policies increasing emigrant voting access. In other words, when incumbent political parties believe that there is clear support for them among emigrants, they actively pursue policies that make it legal and easy for emigrants to vote, such as increasing the availability of polling stations abroad or loosening registration requirements. This relationship is present even when controlling for other relevant factors, such as the size of the emigrant population or the resources of agency conducting elections.

To better understand how incumbent parties’ decisions to make it easier or harder for emigrants to vote, Wellman closely analyzes the history of emigrant voting in South Africa following the end of apartheid.  The African National Congress (ANC), which had led the anti-apartheid liberation movement, pushed for voting procedures that allowed as many people as possible—including emigrants—to participate in the historic 1994 election. This effort was successful: significant funding and resources were dedicated to operating and advertising foreign voting stations. Over 96,000 South African in 78 countries cast ballots in the election.

After the 1994 election, the South African emigrant population changed dramatically. Many black South Africans returned to their home country. Within a few years, as an ANC source described in an interview with Wellman, “The demographics of those outside the country [were] overwhelmingly white, upper middle-class, and deeply antagonistic to the ANC. … Many left because of the ANC being in power.” In response, the ANC-led government passed a law in 1998 that repealed emigrant voting.

Should emigrants vote? And should governments consider the demographic make-up of the emigrant population when creating electoral policies?”.

Opposition parties responded by searching for alternative pathways to enfranchise emigrants again. An opposition party official recounted in an interview with Wellman that they realized they would never be able to achieve this through legislation, since the ANC had a super majority in the National Assembly. They instead took action in the courts, winning a Constitutional Court  ruling in 2009 declaring that emigrant South Africans must have a reasonable ability to vote. This decision didn’t mean emigrants would have the same access to voting, however. The agency in charge of conducting elections was staffed by ANC appointees, and it did not have an incentive to organize foreign voting as robustly as it did in 1994. It restricted polling to consulates and implemented strict registration and identification requirements for emigrant voters. In the 2014 election, only 18,000 South Africans voted from abroad. The ANC, it turns out, was correct about emigrant support: they won 62% of the domestic vote but only 8% of the emigrant vote.

The South African example underscores Wellman’s core finding that emigrant voting access in sub-Saharan Africa depends on incumbent political parties’ strategic calculations. It further demonstrates the importance of looking beyond formal voting rules: governments can make it difficult for emigrants to vote even if the law allows them to do so. These findings prompt important ethical questions about democracy as well: Should emigrants vote? And should governments consider the demographic make-up of the emigrant population when creating electoral policies?


  • Kumar Ramanathan is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern University and will be a doctoral fellow at the American Bar Foundation beginning in the fall of 2020. His dissertation investigates how liberal politicians in northern Democratic Party contested and constructed a civil rights legislative agenda during the 1930s-60s, and aims to explain the origins and limitations of racial liberalism as it emerged among these party elites. His research agenda also includes a set of projects on the impact of civil rights law and policy on the politics of social policy after the 1960s, and collaborative projects on immigrant political participation and urban politics. At Northwestern, Kumar is affiliated with the Chicago Democracy Project, the Comparative Historical Social Sciences Working Group, and the Program in Legal Studies. He received his B.A. in political science and philosophy from Tufts University.
  • Article details: American Political Science Review, Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 October 2020, “Emigrant Inclusion in Home Country Elections: Theory and Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa” by by Elizabeth Iams Wellman, Williams College and University of the Witwatersrand
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